Can we let Bryce Harper be Bryce Harper for now, when he's 19 and still learning the ways of the world? Can we appreciate his personality, letting him grow and mature, without asking him to be a plastic player filled with false humility? Can we encourage him to be as honest and open as possible, letting him experiment with the boundaries, instead of turning him into a colorless cliche machine who never says anything remotely interesting or stimulating?
I understand why the Washington Nationals are concerned about everything that emanates from Harper's mouth and Twitter account. A major-league prospect hasn't been scrutinized this heavily since ... uh, Stephen Strasburg.
But this is different because Strasburg doesn't play every day and the phenoms' respective personalities are polar opposites.
Strasburg is likely to say or do something controversial as often as he pitches nine innings without a strikeout. Harper's comments and actions tend to rub folks the wrong way as often as not. Unfortunately, we've reached the point where Harper's critics manufacture outrage if the effect doesn't occur naturally.
That's what happened a couple of weeks ago when Harper re-affirmed his love for non-D.C. teams, including the Dallas Cowboys, New York Yankees, Los Angeles Lakers and Duke Blue Devils. "I love my Nationals, but im not a Redskins, Georgetown, Wizards, nor a Capitals fan!" he tweeted. A later tweet read: "Cowboys cowboys cowboys for life!!! I hate those redskins! Hah."
Judging by the reaction from local fans and media, I guess 19-year-olds from Nevada are supposed to automatically drop their childhood rooting interests and adopt the hometown teams in their employer's market. Spare me.
As long as Harper gives his all for the Nats — against the Yankees and every other opponent — I couldn't care less who he cheers for. Members of Washington families can have different favorite teams and the same is true for athletes who play in Washington.
Whenever Harper joins that group, he knows whose lifestyle he'd like to emulate — "Broadway" Joe Namath, the flamboyant playboy and Hall of Fame quarterback who became a legend with the New York Jets. "He had that city life and everything like that, but he was one of the best quarterbacks to play the game," Harper told MLB.com last week. "He went out, he played, but he had fun."
Apparently, aspiring to "be like Joe" is frowned upon, too, as Harper's comments sparked the latest wave of critical review. But that aspiration isn't much different than striving to be one of baseball's all-time greats, another of Harper's stated goals. If he accomplishes the latter, I can't begrudge him the former.
Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter doesn't broadcast it (the tabloids do that for him), but he seems to do all right for himself in New York. In the same situation, Harper might be prone to send out a picture over Twitter. Different strokes, different folks.
Jeter's model of deportment is great. But I don't want that from every player in the clubhouse, especially if it's fake. Some of Harper's cockiness and self-confidence is a byproduct of his age and should morph appropriately as he grows older. But that doesn't mean it should disappear completely if it's a genuine part of him; a portion can exist in moderation without him being a jerk.
Anyway, Harper's image outside of D.C. isn't nearly as important as an accurate assessment within, from Nats management, players and fans.
He was heavily criticized for "blowing a kiss" at a pitcher last summer, but the truth isn't as bad as it was portrayed. Harper pursed his lips and smooched, as opposed to indiscreetly bringing a hand to his mouth and blowing. Moreover, the pitcher brought it on himself for acting like a clown throughout the game.
Many opposing fans already hate Harper. Many Nats fans would feel likewise if he wore a different uniform. But something about him is refreshingly honest and sincere. As the Nats try to guide him through the maze of media land mines, I hope he doesn't get lost in the process.
We already have too many phonies in sports.
"I'm going to be my own person," he told MLB.com. "There are a lot of professional athletes back in the old days that did what they wanted to do. That's how I'm going to be. I'm going to prove myself on the field, so I can be that kind of guy off the field. I'm not a clown off the field. I just say things ... I speak my mind and I think that's good.
"If I speak my mind and people know the real me, then they are going to like me more."
It won't help his cause in Philly, Atlanta or other enemy outposts. And he'll learn how to choose his words and pick his spots. But here in D.C., we should favor the real Bryce Harper at 19 and enjoy his evolution for years to come.
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